How slow can you go?
Alentejo, Portugal


There are very few places in the world where, as soon as I arrive, it feels like it’s meant to be. It seems as if I am destined to be here, or perhaps that I was here in a past life. Being at São Lourenço do Barrocal, a storied farmstead hotel and spa in central Portugal’s alluring medieval hilltop village of Monsaraz, just makes me feel that way. There’s something in its mellowness and composure. Everything feels inexplicably intimate: the tranquillity of the vast surrounding wilderness of Alentejo, the cool of the ancient stone floors under my bare feet, even the purr of electric carts jostling over cobblestones outside my window.

A wide flagstone-paved avenue runs through the middle of the seven lovingly refurbished buildings around which ‘Barrocal life’ centres. At any given time of day, smiling staff can be seen ferrying neatly stacked, crisp linens between similarly pristine white buildings. On one occasion, they dodge a man on a bicycle as he bounces on the leather saddle. Two children scurry around and laughter fills the air. In such an idyllic and pastoral setting, little signs of 21st-century life soon begin to feel out of place. This is far from hustle and bustle, a masterclass in slow travel. There is a pervasive sense of remoteness and intense privacy, and even though I’m told the property is at capacity when I visit, I barely see another soul.

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Buildings on either side of the avenue, once the dwellings of scores of farmers and their families, now make up this boutique hotel and spa resort. On the inside, my farm room is a serene space of more white walls, the softest sage-green woodwork and a rustic brick floor. Shuttered wooden doors lead out to a terrace that looks out over a picturesque valley. Sounds of chirruping birds cut through the spring air.

Barrocal has been all about this vibe for 200 years, seven generations and one revolution. Part of the Naturtejo da Meseta Meridional UNESCO Global Geopark, its fecund, softly undulating countryside – sparsely populated and covering almost a third of Portugal – is unlike any other.

The Barrocal estate was acquired by Joaquim Romão Mendes Papança in 1820, during a time of profound socioeconomic change. Papança belonged to a new class of landowner: the liberal bourgeoisie. They worked the land, creating strong connections to it, building communities, and sustainable practices and over generations they transformed what had mostly been scrubland into bounteous farmland. And out of this transformation grew a village with its own square, a bullring (of course), verdant vineyards and lush olive groves. This is the long and fertile legacy that the current eighth-generation owner, José António Uva, inherited and committed himself to, with an ambitious project to turn what had for over a century been a farming village into a multi-award winning hotel and retreat. And retreat is exactly what I am here to do.

Long, narrow, winding country lanes through fields of oaks heavy with acorns and sleepy hamlets of white-washed buildings glistening under the spring sunshine lead me to what is today São Lourenço do Barrocal. Fast-living city life, London and for that matter Lisbon, my gateway here, ebb away long before I arrive at the gates.

The farming village that stood on this spot until the estate was nationalised during Portugal’s Carnation Revolution (even coups sound idyllic here) in 1974 provided so well for the community that inhabitants only left the estate once a year, in August, to visit a local fair and buy commodities like cloth and salt that the estate didn’t produce. The rest of the time, families lived self-sufficiently on the land, in harmony with nature and the seasons.

A sense of contentment and tenderness is still perceptible at Barrocal. I feel it in the old olive mill, which is now the hotel bar. And in the old chicken coop, which now serves as the farm shop, offering everything from made-to-order blankets to wine and honey from the estate. It’s in the courtyards, the farm rooms, the wine cellar, the stables and at every corner of the estate. The site’s long and genteel history lives on, captured and perfectly honoured by its current custodian, who spent 15 years restoring the property after it was returned to the family. All that is asked of us as visitors is that we become a part of it.

That is the essence of this experience: finding stillness within while enmeshed in the magnificent pastoral surroundings. It’s impossible not to fall in love with how that feels. As I ride around the estate on the back of an open truck, wild horses canter gently away with their foals, cattle low contentedly and wildflowers peek out between tall grasses, each waving a gracious “olá” in the breeze. I fill wicker baskets with foraged blooms during a long hike, check in on the residents of the old beehives and graze on long lunches under shady trees. I feel so liberated from the world beyond the estate gates, it’s as if it has ceased to exist altogether.

I spend my days rambling through orchards, sipping savoury and aromatic local wine by the pool and smiling knowingly at well-dressed strangers in framed sepia photographs. All this alone is luxury enough for me. Anyone would be forgiven for thinking that the staggeringly beautiful terrain is the hotel’s greatest offering. But what becomes apparent is that São Lourenço do Barrocal is all about legacy. Not only that of the people that have made up its family, but of the place: Monsaraz, Alentejo and the pioneers who toiled to change the land from shrubs and bushes into one of the world’s great wine regions. And São Lourenço do Barrocal upholds it by tying the landscape and its heritage into everything you might experience here, creating intimacy between the land, visitor and hotel at every opportunity.

An organic vegetable garden grows the produce cooked in the restaurants. José’s grandmother’s hand-written recipe for partridge hangs on the wall and the dish is on the menu all year round. Old family photographs, ledgers tied up in bundles, and letters from the old days cover the walls. Rosemary and lavender – which grow wild close by – are used to scent the rooms and decorate dining tables. The orchards provide enough fruit not only for the restaurants but also for making jams and pickles, which are sold through the farm shop. The locally produced artisanal pottery, colourful blankets and embroidered linen napkins used throughout the hotel tempt me into a purchase. In the property’s spa, therapists use more herbs from the garden to custom-mix an essential oil blend for my massage.

Bucolic retreats are not for everyone, but I find more and more that I crave this kind of immersive connection to new surroundings, especially ones that richly echo the past. It gives me licence to let go, step back, repair and remedy – albeit in extravagant luxury. When you visit, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Photography by Nelson Garrido, Ash James, Ricardo Bravo and courtesy of São Lourenço do Barrocal